‘THE CLEAN HOUSE:’ A KILLING JOKE LEADS TO HOME-MAID HUMORBy Greggory Moore
I’m starting to think that the International City Theatre ought only mount plays in which the action takes place indoors, so consistently good are the sets they fabricate to represent interiors. For Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House (take a guess where the bulk of the action occurs), set designer Stephen Gifford evokes a spread straight out of Better Homes and Gardens with only a few pieces. When you walk in the theater, you only hope what unfolds on stage will do it justice.
But does it?
Right up front I should say that because of burning travel plans I was forced to review The Clean House during a preview performance—understandably not what a theatre company would desire. That said, I didn’t find anything to fault. From the lighting and projection (which features some neat touches) to the blocking to the performances, this is a clean show.
“A woman tells a joke in Portuguese,” a projection near the top of a monolithic shelf unit tells us as the woman in question takes the stage. She is Matilde, who immigrated to the United States from her native Brazil a year ago, after her mother died laughing from a joke told by Matilde’s father, who not long after shot himself from grief. Matilde’s parents cherished laughter above all things, as does Matilde, but now she is in Connecticut working as Lane and Charles’s live-in housecleaner, and not finding it much fun. Cleaning, you see, makes her sad. (We never really find out why, then, she’s taken a job as a housecleaner, but that’s not part of Ruhl’s agenda.)
We meet Lane, a doctor who can’t stand to clean her own house and is increasingly concerned about Charles’s recent unexplained absence, and her sister Virginia, who so desperately wants a task to distract her from her painful bore of a life that she strikes a deal with Matilde to clean Lane’s house while Lane is off at work so that Matilde cannot only be unburdened by the task but can focus on her passion: crafting the perfect joke.
The action turns when it comes out that Charles is having an affair. I won’t say with whom, because that would bear some relation to telegraphing a punchline, but that person’s presence recontextualizes things for all involved. And as Lane has already told us, “Life is about context.”
So are jokes, of course, and that’s probably what makes Ruhl’s script work to whatever degree it does, even if it’s neither the most substantive nor hilarious play. Ruhl goes easy on beating us over the head with the jokes, while at the same time arraying them so they flow naturally enough within the channel of dramatic and emotional reaction. If I were the Pulitzer Prize committee The Clean House would not have been the finalist it was, but it is certainly reasonably well crafted (despite a first act that, in ICT’s hands, clocks in at barely over a half-hour, interrupting the play’s momentum just as it’s hitting its stride).
Director caryn desai consistently makes good choices in presenting the material, and we never have a problem staying immersed in the world and logic of the play, even when it changes its own rules. Theatre, perhaps, is about context, too.
THE CLEAN HOUSE AT INTERNATIONAL CITY THEATRE • 300 E OCEAN BLVD • LONG BEACH 90802 • 562.436.4610 • ICTLONGBEACH.ORG • THURS-SAT 8PM, SUN 2PM • $32-$42 • THROUGH SEPT 19